Playing For Keeps

Project Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, Toronto, Ontario
Architect Kohn Shnier Architects
Text Terri Peters
Photos Tom Arban

There is a cardboard cutout named David in the meeting room of Kohn Shnier’s downtown Toronto office. It stands a bit taller than the chairs in front of a wall of books, magazines and models. It reminds everyone just how tiny the average 5-year-old really is. David is a bit tattered, from being moved around the office over the last few years.

When architects Kohn Shnier were commissioned to design the Fraser Mustard Academy for Early Learning in Thorncliffe Park, Toronto, they were faced with the sensitive task of designing for a lot of Davids—600 junior and senior kindergarten pupils. The local community is composed almost exclusively of new immigrants to Canada, and from the first consultations, the architects could see that residents held high aspirations for the building. They hoped it would be multi-functional and build on the diversity of Thorncliffe Park’s dense postwar neighbourhood of residential towers. Given the multicultural urban context, what kind of character should this building have? How could it become an inspiring and welcoming place for many young Davids to learn and play?

This very large kindergarten—the largest of its kind in Canada—is actually the “small building” on the site. It’s joined to the largest elementary school in North America, Thorncliffe Park Elementary, with 1,600 students. The recent introduction of full-day kindergarten to Thorncliffe Park Elementary generated the need for additional classrooms, larger than standard size and equipped with their own bathrooms. The initial brief given to Kohn Shnier was simply to create a school extension that would house a mix of students, including kindergarteners as well as older students.  

“One of the first things I did was to read the Pascal Report, which advocates the connecting of childcare and kindergarten,” says partner Martin Kohn. By charting how students could be divided between the buildings, the architects discovered the best solution would be to create a kindergarten-only facility with daycare and community spaces. This required minimal alterations to the existing school, including the conversion of existing kindergartens into elementary classrooms.

Visiting on a sunny fall afternoon, one is greeted by a red brick façade at the north entrance with an integral art installation by Kohn’s friend, artist Micah Lexier. Coloured bricks, used in a custom pixellated font, spell out “WELCOME.” The installation, done pro bono, is continued along the 150-metre-long façade with other letters and numbers, creating a textured material strategy of addressing the building’s elongated scale. From this approach, the wedge-shaped school presents a hard urban front, pushing up to the edges of the East York Town Centre’s loading and delivery area. The architects felt this would help create a safe pedestrian and play zone shielded within the dense urban block.

Inside, the building includes three levels of carefully defined program: 25 kindergarten classrooms each with bathroom and cloakroom facilities, a gymnasium, library, play spaces, community rooms, multi-purpose zones, a daycare and staff areas. At the heart of the building is a grand atrium. Today, daylight is streaming into this high, bright space. It is surprisingly quiet: school is out for the day and the building has reverted from a kid-filled hub to a more calm and peaceful environment. Some of the 74 staff are planning activities, talking together and tidying up their classrooms.

Roof lanterns above the atrium exemplify the beautiful and highly functional aspects of the school—the lanterns bring in sunlight as well as drawing hot air upwards, promoting natural ventilation. Another example is the ramp that loops up and around the atrium, offering easier access for groups of small students than a staircase. The ramp also provides a platform from which curious children can look down, over to, and up into various spaces.

Floor-to-ceiling slots and picture windows overlook the atrium from the second-floor corridors, providing orientation and making everyone aware of activity in the courtyard-like space. Even the cluster of multi-coloured foam furniture in the middle of the atrium seems considered, perhaps because the school benefits from a refreshingly muted colour palette. And, the corridors include recessed pinboards for adding the student work that creatively customizes these spaces over the course of the school year.

The upper level of classrooms is equipped with an extra-wide hallway that can be programmed for small groups and otherwise used for running around. Another installation by Lexier runs across the panes of glass that face into the atrium—a pattern that looks like a monochrome ticker tape of symbols, or a made-up language (it’s actually a series of markings found from discarded cardboard boxes). The window film stops kids from walking into the glass, but is also conceived as a fun detail that little David and his friends would enjoy.  

The building´s customization for young children continues in the small details found in its classroom spaces. The way that 4- or 5-year-olds use their classrooms is different than older children: they spend a lot of time sitting on the floor reading, playing and stretching out. In response, the classrooms have radiant heating, as well as operable windows for fresh air. There is no air conditioning, saving on energy and possibly helping reduce the spread of germs. On the southeast and southwest façades, a perforated metal overhang reduces heat gain and creates playful shading patterns inside.

Each classroom has the same hard-wearing finishes: plain wood cabinets for storage, floor-to-ceiling windows and pale nondescript walls. As we pass by one classroom, two teachers are tidying up different learning centres that were set up around the room, putting away feathers and leaves, brightly coloured papers, differently shaped blocks, and various dress-up costumes—all part of a play-based curriculum. The junior and senior kindergarten classrooms each house about 30 children along with a teacher and assistant, and have been designed to be bright, organized and comfortable.

Adjacent to the lower-floor daycare, a kind of wide moat extends along the southwest side of the building, allowing the daycare classrooms to open up into sheltered play gardens. On such an “incredibly tight, no slack” urban site, every inch of ground has a program with consideration for security, maintenance, age appropriateness and cost. Kohn explains that using artificial turf for the intensively used kindergarten playground makes sense here: “it helps to think of the field as a piece of play equipment, as a surface.”

The roof of the school was initially designed as an important amenity: a garden and playspace for the kindergarten students. Sabina Ali, winner of the Jane Jacobs Award and part of the local design community panel for the school design, laments the loss of this important space, and its late-stage post-tender transformation into staff car parking. “It is a huge missed opportunity for play and for hands-on learning,” she says. A public park to the south of the site compensates to some extent. “We have already had 10 to 12 kindergarten classes visiting the park—we are trying to fill in the gap, so that the kids have not lost the opportunity entirely.”  

Kohn Shnier´s site-specific response to the challenging brief and focus on architectural spaces and experiences has been key to the building’s success. “The most important thing is that the school is beautiful and welcoming for students, and that it brings a lot to the community,” says Ali, wh
o explains that seemingly small details bring significant benefits. At the south entrance for instance, a covered terrace and canopy offer shelter from the elements, creating an informal meeting point for parents picking up their children. The school is designed for David—but its impact extends outwards, to David’s parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and his entire community.

Terri Peters is an architect and post-doctoral researcher at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.  

Client Toronto District School Board | Architect Team Martin Kohn, John Shnier, Maggie Bennedsen, David Hannah, Michal Gorczyca, Jesse Payne, Felix Larson, Amin Ebrahim | Structural Blackwell Structural Engineers | Mechanical/Electrical Jain & Associates Ltd. | Landscape JSW + Associates | Interiors Kohn Shnier Architects | Contractor Struct-Con Construction Ltd. | Artist Micah Lexier | Area 6,617 m2 | Budget $24.6 M | Completion September 2013